My current project looks at the pragmatics and cultural beliefs about the how, where and why of houses in the Dhofar region of southern Oman. I want to look at the material aspect of houses (how houses are designed, sited and built), as well as functional purposes such as how people move through spared spaces during a typical day while maintaining individual and family privacy, who is in control of decorating choices and what are the rules governing when guests may visit. I would also like to look at the symbolic aspect of houses, e.g. when are houses seen as clean or dirty and what makes a house beautiful. While most writing about buildings on the Arabian Peninsula concentrates on either traditional/ historic structures or urban architectural wonders, my work focuses on middle-class, modern housing. The information presented is built on 17 years of research on the Arabian Peninsula, formal interviews, visits to many Omani houses and the author’s ten years of living in Dhofari-designed houses in Dhofari neighborhoods.
“Private Lives in Public Spaces: Perceptions of Space-Usage in Southern Oman.” Middle East Studies Association’s annual conference. Montreal, Quebec. October 29-31, 2021. forthcoming
This presentation discusses issues related to the cultural perceptions of space and privacy on the Arabian Peninsula. Most of the studies on this topic emphasize how unrelated men and women are separated in commercial and municipal spaces in the countries making up the Gulf Cooperation Council. Based on fifteen years of experience and research in southern Oman, I will focus on how men and women navigate the same or nearby public spaces at the same time. Using examples from shops, grocery stores, universities, restaurants, cafes, airports and hospitals I will discuss who moves where according to cultural rules about position and proximity.
This presentation will examine how the interior and exterior of buildings, as well as public spaces such as walking paths and picnic areas, are designed to promote both ease of movement and privacy. This material environment is then traveled through following set communal understandings of placement. Unlike Saudi Arabia’s forced gender segregation, Oman relies on individuals choosing to adhere to societal norms instead of top-down government restrictions. For example, an initiative at one bank to have a “women’s only” teller fizzled out (as did a scheme to give women customers pink bank cards), but customers and clerks continue to follow strict, unwritten rules about who stands where.
Another example is universities. In some Gulf countries, there are separate campuses for men and women. Omani institutions of higher learning have only one campus yet there are both physical (having two sets of doors for classrooms) and mental (where students choose to sit) barriers to gender-mixing.
Using theories and insights from the fields of architecture, architectural sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, Islamic studies, sociology and urban studies I will explain how privacy is maintained in public zones. I will specifically address the common trope of how clothing enhances privacy, a truism that is not always true. This work is based on research for over a decade with one group of tribes in southern Oman.
Dhofari salle, sitting room for women, family and close friends/ family (photo taken by informant and used with permission)